SPINAL cord injury is one of the most traumatic experiences an individual may ever have to deal with, both physically and psychologically.

Yet provision for persons with such injury, sometimes abbreviated to SCI, is often woefully lacking. For example, it has been estimated that in some parts of Britain, it would take a staggering 51 years to meet the demand for wheelchair-accessible housing.

The spinal cord is the connecting road between the brain and all parts of the body. It is housed in the vertebral column, a series of bones running from the base of the skull downwards.

This tunnel-like structure surrounds and protects the cord. At multiple levels nerves leave the spinal cord, providing electrical signals to and from every bodily organ including the skin. This information is then fed back up the spinal canal to the brain.

The most common causes of SCI are accident or injury. High speed road traffic accidents, falls from a height and sporting injuries top the list.

Sadly, the number of SCIs due to violence is on the rise, and indeed some perpetrators actively attempt to maim their victims in such a way to cause maximum disability.

A tumour in the spinal canal may slowly compress the spinal cord, with symptoms developing gradually, rather than in an instant.

The spinal cord can be damaged at any point along its length. An injury is classified according to the level, with C indicating cervical or neck region, T for thoracic (the chest) and L for lumbar (the area also referred to as the lower back).

Injury may be complete if there is full loss of sensation and function below the damage, or partial, if some feeling and/or movement remain.

The road to recovery from spinal injury is long. After the immediate event and any treatment to stabilise the spine, a person with SCI may spend between nine months to two years in a dedicated spinal injuries unit, before they are able to be discharged to either their own setting, or assisted living.

Being reliant on others for the most basic of physical needs often takes its toll, both on those with the injury, as well as those who assist them. It will probably come as no surprise that sufferers of SCI have higher rates of mental and physical illnesses than more able-bodied persons.

Despite this, persons with SCI can live a fulfilled existence, including relationships and having children.

One of the goals of charities involved, including the Spinal Injuries Association (SIA), is for those with such an injury not to be defined by said disability, either by others or in their own conscious.

In the same way that interested individuals are learning Basic Life Support, a better understanding of the spinal cord will hopefully mean that bystanders who witness an accident will not rush to assist the person without giving thought to the fact that uncoordinated handling of a victim may make a spinal injury worse.

Friday, May 15, is Spinal Cord Injuries National Awareness Day.

Useful websites:

Spinal Injuries Association

National Spinal Injuries Centre